The Audacity of Udacity

What about all this excitement for online learning?  Is it the means for recovering the right path to a higher education? Some think so: Bill Bennett on Udacity.  I am not convinced.

 In my previous blog I lamented the turn in modern education toward slavery away from freedom.  As this turn completes and education becomes fully about certification and motivation, the new and rapidly expanding online alternatives will fill both these criteria much better than the expensive “traditional” factory college classrooms.  So I applaud the saving of some money.

But is it a better education?  What are the criteria for better?  You can take classes when you want, dressed in your pj’s or less, and spend less money.  You set the pace, the content, and get to interact only with a screen.  To many in our day that is much better.  You don’t have to leave home, so the rent is lower, the food is better (in many cases), and you sleep in your old bed, not a noisome dorm.

And the courses tend to be better fitted to the modern student: visually oriented, fast paced, generally assessed in a manner that gives you multiple shots at passing, and with no books, just online stuff.  The ability to gather information from the leading sources and specialists is superior to any on campus experience.  And did I mention it was cheaper?

So it is the idea that will revitalize education, right?  Not so fast. Education as defined by whom?  In my previous post, there is clearly two definitions.  One wants to see a person get into the job of his dreams, the other wants to see a person become more human.  The first goal is much lower than the second.  If the first is sufficient, then perhaps online certification may be a viable means. It should be noted that the most popular distance learning options are seeking ways to ensure that the online experience did in fact “take” by demanding some sort of final “face to face” assessment by another human before conferring their degree.

The issue of human interaction is at the heart of my concerns.  I have some experience with distance learning and distance teaching.  This experience and reading about other people’s experiences has led me to these questions regarding this latest attempt at educational paradise:

  1. A computer cannot, philosophically and practically speaking, replace a human.  It can be programmed to be intuitive but is limited to the imagination of the programmer, typically even falling short of that limited sphere.  So how can a computer judge a human’s abilities and give a true assessment of skill or wisdom?
  2. It is exponentially harder to transfer skill through recorded material than in a “live” setting.  So how will even the best video or magic whiteboard settings communicate anything other than one recorded way of learning?  I can see multiple versions of a lesson, but that assumes that a student having watched format A will know he does not understand and move to format B and C until he does understand.  The most basic problem any teacher of young people confronts is the over inflated notions they have of their own mastery of a subject.  Take one course in X subject and they talk like an expert, until they are Socratically questioned by someone who truly is an expert.
  3. The key component of most online learning is the internal motivations and character of the student.  That is true in the classroom as well, but the human teacher can catch the glint in the eye, the mannerisms, etc. that reveal either a truly engaged mind or one who is bluffing.  No online experience that I am aware of can discern the soul of its student.  So even setting aside the freedom/slavery discussion of my previous post, just the utility of the mode is questioned.  A lot of certified online graduates will show up to work and demonstrate that they are not ready when real people ask them to do real things.   That already happens with many traditional graduates, which is why most folks want to see a change in how we do college.  But I am not sure that the computer will do any better.
  4. The very things that have been jettisoned in the classroom and that have thus resulted in poorer education are not necessarily being recovered by the traditional teachers who are now going online with their stuff.  Yes, you can package the information in neater videos and charts, interactive games, and in many cases get by with more salacious content, but in the end mimetic and Socratic modes of teaching are just as absent from the online stuff as from the live courses.  So after the fallacy of “new is better” has worn off, and we have taken time (probably about 20 years) to evaluate the differences between the new new and the old new, there won’t be measureable differences, other than those of utility mentioned earlier: price, convenience, etc. So how is online education substantively different than classroom, other than price, convenience, etc.?

I say all this while currently being employed in helping to create an online environment.  In fact, I am trying to find ways to spur students to think more clearly than they will have to in their traditional college classrooms.  But the format is limited.  It is not a panacea.  It is only as good as those limitations.  In the end, education is a heart transplant.  The teacher’s life is recreated in the student’s.  I am not convinced that the online world can do that anymore truth, goodness, or beauty than the traditional classroom.  It is an alternative, not a whole new world.


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